Trudeau sends aide to Morneau
PM adviser moves into key finance role
Justin To to head budget-making team amid turmoil over tax changes
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is placing one of his senior policy advisers into Bill Morneau’s office as the Finance Minister struggles to contain the backlash over proposed reforms to small business taxes and prepares for a fall fiscal update and 2018 budget.
Mr. Trudeau’s deputy director of policy, Justin To, is moving to the Finance department to become Mr. Morneau’s policy and budget director – a job that is responsible for tax changes and other budgetrelated issues.
It is an influential position that involves leading the minister’s budget-making team and meeting with groups looking to get their priorities funded. Mr. To is replacing Robert Asselin, who is leaving government for the private sector.
Placing one of Mr. Trudeau’s economic and financial advisers in the Finance Minister’s office comes as some Liberal MPs have criticized Mr. Morneau’s smallbusiness tax changes in response to growing protests from doctors, dentists, lawyers, farmers and other small-business owners.
However, Mr. Morneau’s office said the move is unrelated to current events. The minister’s spokesman, Daniel Lauzon, told The Globe and Mail on Friday that Mr. Asselin informed the minister around the time of the spring budget that he intended to leave government in the fall.
“Shortly thereafter discussions began about continuity of business,” Mr. Lauzon said in an e-mail. “The obvious and best solution from the minister’s office perspective was for Justin To, who had been intimately involved in the budget process from Day 1, to occupy the director of policy position. Though no official announcement or move has been made, the plan is for the transition to take place gradually and seamlessly.”
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre questioned the government’s explanation for Mr. To’s move to the Finance department, saying the timing is too coincidental.
“This is clearly a rescue mission. Bill Morneau’s tax grab on local businesses and family farmers has unleashed political chaos in the Liberal caucus,” he said. “It is a direct result of a furious backlash on the ground in Liberal ridings across the country and the Prime Minister is sending in a top operative to try to get this crisis under control.”
Mr. To’s move to the Finance Minister’s office is part of a larger movement to insert advisers from the Prime Minister’s Office into cabinet ministers’ offices in what some Liberals say is an effort to gain greater day-to-day influence over ministerial decision-making.
At least six former PMO staffers are now chiefs of staff to cabinet ministers, including at Foreign Affairs, Natural Resources, National Defence, Veterans Affairs, Small Business and the House Leader’s office.
Some Liberals, speaking on background, said Mr. Trudeau simply wants to put the best qualified people into these ministerial positions – individuals who have impressed him with their abilities and trust.
Other Liberals say the drawback is that former Trudeau aides may be unwilling to challenge the PMO when necessary.
“They are very competent people but if you look at it as a whole, there is a pattern: It is to make sure that there is no resistance and when the will of PMO is asked, it is executed without question,” one senior Liberal said. “That is the perception making the rounds.”
Mr. Trudeau’s communications director, Kate Purchase, defended the staffing move in an e-mail, calling Mr. To “one of the most experienced and well-respected staffers in government.” She said he has been integral to the planning of the past two budgets.
The small-business tax changes have proven to be a difficult issue for Mr. Morneau and the topic is expected to dominate Monday’s return of Parliament from the summer recess.
Liberal MPs say they’ve been inundated with calls about the proposed tax changes, and some are urging Mr. Morneau to make changes before legislation is tabled. The government is consulting on the proposed changes until Oct. 2, but doesn’t appear willing to back down on the essence of its plan.
The federal government maintains its three-part proposal will close what it says are unfair tax loopholes used by wealthy small business owners and professionals and will ensure that everyone is paying their fair share. The Prime Minister has repeatedly said he will make “no apologies” for the government’s commitment to helping the middle-class by having wealthy people pay more.
Business groups are banding together to insist the changes could have devastating consequences on small business owners, many of whom make up the bulk of the so-called middle-class.
Sean Speer, who held senior economic advisory positions in both the PMO and the Finance Minister’s office under the Conservatives and who knows both Mr. Asselin and Mr. To, said he’s inclined to believe the Liberal government’s explanation.
“On one hand, you could think of it as PMO trying to have more control of the Minister of Finance’s office and agenda. The flip side is also true,” he said. “This gives Minister Morneau someone with really direct relationships in the Prime Minister’s Office, which may help advance some files that maybe he was having difficulty with.”
Mr. Speer, who worked with Mr. To during the formal transition of power from the Conservatives to the Liberals, spoke highly of him.
“Justin [To] is a really notable quantitative researcher,” he said. “I think he’s a really impressive dude.”